José Arenas

Bay area painter José Arenas recently completed a mural commission in his hometown neighborhood of downtown San José, now the up and coming art district of the United States’ 10th largest city. Arenas is art faculty at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California; a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and UC Davis, where he completed his MFA in 2000. He is currently represented by Hang Gallery in San Francisco. This interview was conducted at the completion of the San José mural, and will be included in a monograph of Arenas’ work to be published in early 2010 by Hunger Button Books.


Whirligig: You’ve just completed a mural in downtown San José that is 16 feet high by 108 feet long. How does that feel?

José: It feels pretty good especially now that it’s done. I now have time to look back and reflect on what happened in the last two months. I was really excited to work with other people. I usually don’t get that when working in the studio, in there it’s mostly alone time. So I got to work with a great team for about six weeks and at the end of the project we held an unveiling party. It was a really good way to give thanks to all of them for being involved in such a big project.

Whirligig: Talk about your process in both developing the imagery and in painting the mural.

José: The call for entries involved submitting a packet that included one’s work, a résumé, statement, and letter of intent. The statement and letter were instrumental in articulating my own history and connection to San José. After I was accepted, there were two designs that were expected of me within about three weeks. I wrote in the statement that I was pretty much of a downtown (San José) kid for most of my childhood years. So I went back to that statement and remembered what drew me to that area. I guess I was doing a bit of reminiscing because I was thinking back to when I was a kid.

When I started working on the design I used Photoshop, which for me was a relatively new way to put my ideas together. Typically the way I worked before was a collage cut and paste method where I had a blank sheet of paper and I would move images around to see how they formed relationships. What I ended up doing this time was cutting and pasting various elements from very specific sources. If I had an idea of a flower, I searched it out or I would scan it from a variety of book sources and then manipulate it in Photoshop so that it changed, and then I would incorporate it into the larger idea that I was working on. So it was a bit of a new way for me to work.

Because this is a very panoramic mural, it took a bit for the imagery to begin to coalesce and flow together, mostly because of this constant moving of the images. Finally I began to see a kind of rhythmic flow from one end to the other. I also wanted a clear and strong visual impact, so I chose large simplified images within a flat uniform background. Thematically, I think the idea of looking back or thinking of past experiences, and specifically of growing up in San José, were the starting point for the symbols and images that I ultimately chose to use.

One of the cool things that happened when we finally started painting was that Oscar, one of the two guys helping me out, discovered that painting a mural is really a fluid process. It wasn’t strict that whatever was on the master drawing plan had to be exactly the same on the wall. That’s one of the things I really liked about the project — day-to-day things would change due to site-specific circumstances and the materials we were dealing with. We needed to adjust, tweak and move things around on the giant wall rather than rigidly sticking to the original design. One example of this is that right where a large portrait was going to be painted there is some really rough brick, so we had to re-strategize where this giant little kid face was going to go. We ended up moving it a few feet to the right were the wall smoothed out. As it turns out there are two lampposts on both sides of the face that light it up at nighttime and end up nestling and framing it in a nice way. So we used the wall and everything around it to guide us on where things would ultimately go. That was a really great component — the unanticipated things that would happen throughout the process.


Whirligig:  What were the challenges?

José: The best part of working on a large-scale project like this was definitely working with other people, both the team and the people who put it all together. The organization that made it all happen worked with the city, property owners, and I think they had a committee that also included gallery directors around the South First Area. Though most of the experience was positive, something I realized quickly was that we were visitors in this corner lot. The wall, which spanned about 160 ft, was facing a parking lot that was always in use. It fluctuated from extremely busy and full, to steady with a constant flow of downtown visitors. Needless to say we had to be very careful about paint on the cars and on the pavement. It was kind of funny because at first the parking lot attendant wasn’t very welcoming to us. Sometimes he would arbitrarily say, “You have to go. It’s going to be very busy here and we are going to have a full parking lot.”

Meanwhile the lot would be empty for hours so we’d have to wrap up and put every single thing back into our make shift storage site. But that didn’t last too long because eventually the main guy warmed up to us, and I remember he even started looking over my shoulder to see how well I was blending or mixing colors. There were a couple of times after that that I gave him a brush, and you know what, he got really into it.

One other minor challenge was that we weren’t allowed to do full scaffolding. I ended up renting a scissor lift in order to maneuver around cars more easily and move out of the site quickly. It was a little slower, but not bad really. For the most part, the neighborhood people and visitors that walked by were enthusiastic and offered nothing but positive feedback, and this ultimately is what made any of our challenges pretty minor and inconsequential.

Whirligig: What did you learn? What will you take away from this experience?

José: What will I take from this? There are certainly a few things. : The satisfaction of accomplishing something that at first may seem quite intimidating. I remember when I first looked into the project I was excited about it but also a little bit fearful. I am really glad that I followed through with the application process since it was such a rewarding experience. Another thing I really enjoyed seeing was how Oscar and Mike, who helped me the most on the mural, took real ownership of the project. They were always enthusiastic and serious about what we were undertaking. When we had our unveiling party they brought their families, relatives and loved ones to partake in the celebration. It was an experience where we really were able to connect in a variety of ways. Not only that, but it was a situation where you have this parking lot, with a big bare wall that nobody pays attention to, and all of a sudden you have a few people who transform this very public place within the span of about a month and a half. All of a sudden these relationships start to form and you start to see that it’s not just about an end product, the mural, but all the things that happen within that given time — the interactions and connections that are made with the working artists as well as the many other people we came across on a daily basis. I would like to someday write about this experience.

Whirligig: What was the significance of the Vietnamese boats in the mural?


José: One of the things I was doing was looking at the ethnic make up of San José. I remember in elementary school I had many Vietnamese, Latino, and African-American friends. I remember it being pretty diverse. Still you had to keep friends separate sometimes, but it was diverse nonetheless. I was thinking I wanted to draw in something that had to do with travel, of immigrant patterns of movement. This started from looking back at my own experience of traveling back and forth between San José and Mexico. I was specifically thinking that my mom’s story of being an immigrant farm worker paralleled with similar stories of other immigrant groups. I thought it would be interesting to incorporate a variety of symbols that could suggest travel and movement. One of the things I was fascinated with in these little boats was that they are literally one-person vessels where one is able to maneuver in a variety of directions. I think of one’s body, like the boats, as a vessel in which we move about in any direction, and just like the boat, have the ability to float aimlessly or with direction and purpose. Mostly I think of it as a personal voyage we all take — we are moving and finding our place in the world. This is a concept that I also use in my more personal work. I use boats that range from large ships that can reference colonization, to small boats, which have more to do with personal movement.

Whirligig: Much of your work seems to be about passage and connections. Can you talk about these?

José: First I’ll tell you a bit more about the boats. I am interested in what happens when you see an empty vessel or boat. For a time I was using them as just that, empty vessels that could be seen as a memory of somebody who was at one point here and has passed on. Then the boats started to take on a narrative quality, because I began using a boy with his hands clasped in a prayer position. That pose was actually taken from old Catholic paintings where you might typically see the Virgin Mary with her flying little baby angels protecting those that might be in turmoil. I saw an innocent boy in the middle of a stormy ocean and I became very interested in adding that component into my paintings.

One of the things I grew up with was religion, with very opposing religious views since my mother was Seventh Day Adventist and my father was semi-Catholic. My father was not a religious guy. He took the Eucharist, but that was about it. My mother was very religious, and in some ways I was caught in the middle. Anyway, these and other elements over time have definitely made their way into my paintings.

In terms of passage, I think it relates to my experience of constant movement back and forth between here and Mexico. But more than that I like the idea of shifting emotional states and the foggy quality of recollected past experiences. I was just talking to my sisters about this. We were comparing notes about growing up traveling all the time. In some ways my siblings felt more dislocated traveling between Mexico and the States. Whereas I think it connected me more to both places. I really loved that there was an established community of family and friends there.

When I got older though, my mom wanted us to be in one place and not moving back and forth. I think I was around 13 when we ended up in California on a more permanent basis. This is where I went to high school. I think that’s when I started to get, maybe more nostalgic, and feel like I was losing that part of me that grew up in Mexico. It was a confusing time for me because high school was a little rough, and I felt I stood out and was not so much part of this place. I think it was magnified also because when we lived in Mexico, at least at that time, it felt more like home. When I started making art I thought more and more about this dynamic of traveling back and forth, and that at a certain point when you are not returning to a certain place it becomes something that lingers in the mind. Mexico is more in my mind now. I wonder if I returned to live in Mexico now, how I would feel in terms of belonging to that particular place.


Whirligig: You employ very distinctive iconography/symbols. How do you develop these? Where do they come from?

José: I like images and their ability to communicate profoundly. A lot of my own process is built around collecting. In the past few years I’ve become more obsessive about accumulating imagery and objects. I like the process of gathering picture sources that come from anywhere and everywhere. For example, a flower folder may have traditional Mexican style pictures, 17th century botanical illustrations, or old 70’s children’s encyclopedia graphics.

I have a whole host of images that I can draw from. That’s an aspect I really enjoy — searching and finding the image. I think beyond that it becomes a process of putting together various symbols and then reacting to them, seeing how they play off of each other and interact. From a collection standpoint, I have this library of forms available that, though I may not know what meaning I will want them to communicate, I can search them out at any time to explore an idea I have. When I start to think about a direction to follow, like the idea of back and forth movement and place, I’ll sometimes key into a word or phrase, and start to draw on images I might be able to employ to communicate that thought.

Lately I’ve been into bees in a symbolic manner. I’ve started collecting images of bees and am seeing how they might be used in a new series of paintings. Like the boats, which are images that suggest drifting and hovering, I’m connecting the bees to flight, movement, and cross-pollination. I’m thinking about how over the years I have brought with me various things from both of these environments that I’ve been a part of. Sometimes things stay in tact and sometimes they mix and become hybridized. One example might be the use of Spanglish, where you are mixing two languages together to say something but it’s not necessarily an accepted or agreed upon language. I’ve been thinking about how this process has informed, or formed my identity. I feel it’s an ever-changing day-to-day thing. It’s tricky when it comes to identity labels, which in my case is about being Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, Latino-Americano. When I visit my family in the San Joaquin Valley and we switch to speaking Spanish I start feeling more and more connected to that side of me, which to me is Mexicano. But I also found when I was in grade school living in downtown San José, most of the kids in my neighborhood identified as Chicano, and I found that I identified with them too, since, like them, I was born here in the States from Mexican born parents. What I ultimately realized is that though I’ve grown up fully assimilated, I can always remain connected to the two sides of me because of my ability to switch back and forth in Spanish and English.

Whirligig: When looking at your work I can identify Mexican iconography. Does that mean everything else is North American iconography? Or perhaps a better way to put it is what is the most quintessential way to identify North American iconography or your experience as an American?

José: That’s something I wrestle with on a formal level. One of the things I’ve been looking at for a number of years is how Latin American, and specifically Mexican neighborhoods form in the United States. There is visually a similar flavor that you can notice in the hand made signs that pop up all around. They generally have a more direct and untrained quality, which I find very appealing. I’m quite influenced by this in my paintings but find that I can’t quite achieve the same visual results. In a way I think it’s because I’ve been tainted, I’ve gone through art school. I can’t quite capture it. I can also see this in my mom’s artwork. I helped her regularly by giving her mini lessons and technique tips. She definitely improved, at the same time though, no matter what, she did it her own way. And you know what, I felt conflicted because I loved the naive quality of her work and didn’t want her to change that, but also realized she wanted to learn and improve her technique.

One thing that’s on my mind is how this particular aesthetic can contrast a more refined graphic sensibility found in the United States. It’s an interesting difference I’d like to explore through my painting. I’d like the work to reflect a more slick and graphic quality that pairs with a more direct, raw and simplified approach. So it’s not so much about identifiable North American or Mexican Iconography, but about the contrast in visual strategies that are used in different parts of the world.

Whirligig: Could it be said that you are living the North American life by nature of being here so perhaps there is less need to incorporate that into the work because the work is your bridge to the other.

arenas_mapped06José: Yes, I think that’s probably right. Just by taking everything in all around me on a daily basis, I’m already internalizing and processing the experience of being here. There is a writer that said you are a product of your circumstances — your whole psychological make up is based on your relationships and connections to people, your environment, and everything else. But I also realize I’ve become assimilated, which means inevitably my experiences here have contributed to who I am and how I look at things. And in some ways that has put me in an in-between state, which could be an interesting point of investigation — how others may perceive you. I realize that happens. I think I sometimes fulfill a stereotype in other people’s minds. It’s in subtle ways, like when people I just met say, “Your English is so good,” or “my, you have no accent.” But I also get it from people who are predominately Spanish speaking where they in turn might say, “Hey, Your Spanish is pretty good even though you’re a pocho.” It makes me think of how you can become this in-between product. If I go to Mexico people might, no matter what, see me as a pocho even though I speak fluent Spanish. Pocho means you are born in the United States from immigrant parents and grow up not knowing Spanish and any of the cultural traditions.

Whirligig: In your history as a maker, how do you see the trajectory of your own code?

José: How it has evolved to this point? For a number of years I was making paintings where compositionally the image was front and center, and functioned as symbol. Now I use many more images that visually interact and form many different narratives. When I was in graduate school I remember putting giant tubas in the middle of my compositions and responding to the way they created a bold and iconic feel. Later, because of my growing interest in gathering picture sources, I started responding to the way the instrument’s context was widened when I combined and introduced other elements. Right now I’m in a place where I’m evaluating what I’ve done over the last few years, especially as I think of the symbols that keep popping up. I start getting curious about how an image that was used in one context could be paired with something else to create a completely different response. But coming back to your first question of my process for the mural, I think Photoshop plays a part in my work here, too, since it allows me to see six or seven different versions of a composition, and to determine which one can become a final painting. Still, what’s interesting to me is that when I’m actually painting, all the research stuff sometimes goes out the window and I end up following what the painting tells me to do.

Whirligig: Can you talk about your integration of decorative elements with the symbolic?

José: The decorative I find could become symbolic, too, depending on how it’s framed or presented in the painting. I’ve been using a particular tile pattern called Talavera that is made and used in parts of Mexico. A lot of it is monochrome — blue on a white background. It certainly is a decorative motif, but I like that it could hold some symbolic weight as well. Talavera is interesting because it is a hybridized tradition. When the Spaniards came they brought with them the wheel and tin glaze. While the indigenous people already had a long tradition of pottery making, Talavera’s roots in colonialism are firmly placed. I find it interesting to use for its beauty and for its ability to communicate on a wider level. I like how these particular elements can move in any direction.

Whirligig: Let’s talk about color. Your palette is very rich and seductive.

José: Thank you. I think the mural we made over summer has informed my color choices in the studio. For that mural I used dark muted colors that were meant to make the background recede and push back so the bright intense forms would come forward. I did this in a simplified manner since most of the forms were about 10 feet tall and I wanted to achieve the strongest possible impact.

arenas_tugboat07In my painting now, I want to come back to simplifying my background with moodier color. In the last year my paintings have gotten compositionally very dense with lots of decorative elements and shapes that float around. There is a shallow sense of space with plenty of overlap, but it is not deep space where forms inhabit a kind of wide-open scape, on the contrary they stay adjacent to each other and concentrate more on the narrative relationships they form. Brilliant colors help me bring to life the images that I want to be more central and symbolically charged. Another component that I am coming back to is the use of a monochromatic color scheme. I think mostly because it tends to simplify color a bit, and you can really appreciate the value and contrast found in the forms. I also like that you have a narrow color field that can remain visually clear but still elicit a strong emotional impact.

Whirligig: You have a two year-old daughter. How has parenthood affected your imagery?

José: It’s been learn-as-you-go, being a parent, and I really enjoy the experience so far. Emi is a real gift and I am now beginning to see how she plays a role in my art making process. In the past when I painted images of children, I’d use old kid pictures of my brother or myself for reference, but now I’m beginning to use Emi as a reference. A few weeks ago I photographed her with her eyes closed and got some great profile and frontal shots. Luckily she likes the camera and is good-natured about me using her in my paintings. She’ll ask to see ‘her’ paintings and expects that I will put them all in her room when I finish.

A couple of years ago I did a painting that had a boy with his eyes closed with many floating elements around him. It was meant to signal that space in-between when you are not quite awake or asleep, but are still somewhat conscious. Recently I revisited that picture and liked the idea of a magically occupied space. So I just started taking pictures of Emi, Erica, and myself in a sleep state, and now it’s something that I’m working towards. The trigger for these ideas was not only from that older painting, but also from looking at Emi in that half-sleep state where she seems so peaceful and unperturbed.

I’ve also recently begun to notice the toys around her, and that has prompted me to isolate and photograph them in a variety of poses. It is just in the last year and a half that I’ve started noticing the different and interesting shapes in children’s objects. I am collecting these and may use them in future paintings.

Whirligig: You grew up in San José and had regular visits to Mexico. What was your childhood like?

José: For the most part it was positive. In talking with my brothers and sisters we all have a different take on things. I thought it was exciting and adventurous to travel. We traveled on train because my mother was too scared to fly to Mexico. So we would take a Greyhound bus from San José to the Calexico-Mexicali border. Then, from the border we’d take a train, which I think was a 36 – 40 hour journey, to Guadalajara, Jalisco. We did this once every couple of years from about the age of three or four. Both of my sisters and a couple of my older brothers felt more uprooted, and naturally once they became more independent they chose to stay in Mexico on a more permanent basis. Eventually they all decided to live here, and are now all in California.

arenas_personaleffects07The traveling part, for me, had a magical element to it. I remember we would be on these long journeys on train, which at night was quite dramatic and stirring. It would be 95 degrees going across the desert with most of the windows wide open. All of it was so great, stopping in strange towns in the middle of the night, dirty crowded Greyhound stations, schlepping tons of luggage from one station to the next. Looking back, it is so interesting to me that my mom would regularly take us on these epic journeys. I remember once there was a derailed train — the train that left before ours en route to Mexico City. I think we were traveling behind it by a few hours. When we came up on it the only way to get to our final destination was to unload all the people from our train, walk around the derailed train cars and board another train which was waiting on the other side. Pretty haunting when I think back on it.

As far as my childhood, I’d say myself and my younger brother had it pretty well, and my older brothers and sisters had it much tougher. When they were kids, and this is no exaggeration, they had to, for a time, sleep in a station wagon next to the field where my mom was picking strawberries and other fruit in season. They also lived in little shacks up around Skyline Boulevard when it was all orchards around this area.

Whirligig: How did you come to be an artist?

José: As far back as I can remember, I always drew and my mom saw that I had an interest for it. She definitely encouraged me, but also pushed me toward music for a while. I resisted but took piano lessons for a few years until I finally quit for painting and drawing. I remember I carried a sketchbook and drew all the time, and when my mom’s friends would come over she would have me draw them. A lot of times I would draw a portrait of them with their favorite bible character. My mom’s best friend, Maria Bernal, loved Job, who was the guy in the Old Testament who was tested by God. He was really very resilient while being tested and in the end was rewarded. Anyway, I wish I still had those drawings.

I also remember that through her church, my mom became a pen pal to state prisoners. She would write to them and talk to them about God and they would write back. That didn’t last too long though, because their letters started getting friendlier and friendlier and she was forced to cut communication with them. That kind of ministry was over for her.

Have you ever seen prisoner artwork? There are sad clowns and lots of religious iconography: crosses, rosary bead, and the image of Christ. They would draw all over their letters and envelopes and my mom would have me draw on the letters she was sending them. Sometimes it was a version of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. I suppose that was the start of me becoming an artist, but I didn’t really get any formal training until well after high school, since the classes there were basically study hall. After high school, I went to a community college in Stockton where there was an adjunct faculty member that taught painting and showed his work regularly in San Francisco. I remember thinking he was really present and involved with us, and was always willing to share his experience of teaching and making art. That’s when I started becoming more mindful of the imagery and ideas that I was putting into my sketchbook and began to develop a more personal and meaningful point of view.

Whirligig: Why did you choose painting as your primary art media?

José: I took many painting classes when attending Delta Community College along with some required general classes here and there. After a couple of years though, I dropped out and moved up to Mendocino County to a little town called Point Arena. I feel like I blossomed there because of the many artists I was exposed to. There were a few very interesting communities that made it a really exciting place to be. There were a handful of painters recently graduated from RISD that rented studio space locally, as well as older, back-to-the-land hippies who had a strong arts organization in town. All of that reinforced my interest in painting, and during my stay there I began to paint in earnest. For the next couple of years I made, what would become the work I would eventually submit as my portfolio to the San Francisco Art Institute.

Whirligig: Your BFA is from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and your MFA from UC Davis. What is your reflection of these educational experiences?

José: Going to a community college I was exposed to a wide range of experiences, and it wasn’t exclusive to mostly middle class white kids like at SFAI. There was a diverse population at the community college that was refreshing. As a whole, going to the Art Institute was a very positive thing though, and mostly the criticism I point out was just part of going to a small and relatively expensive school. It is where I did the bulk of my undergraduate work, which I feel helped me greatly mature as a painter. I also did a lot of drawing and a fair amount of printmaking, which helped me to express myself in other valuable ways. When I really delved into painting though, probably by the end of my second year, I worked much more regularly on a one-on-one basis with selected instructors. I was lucky to receive a coveted senior studio space, which allowed me to literally paint night and day. That proved to be the most prolific time for me while at SFAI, although I was confused much of the time. I remember one instructor would tell me their idea of what painting was while another would say the complete opposite. I feel that the sense of floating between many perspectives helped me find my voice and forced me to develop a more experiential creative outlook. I was determined to keep making artwork and not worry so much what the results would be. Good or bad, and I think it was mostly bad, it was great to be in constant dialogue with other students and instructors for the better part of three years.

About three years after SFAI, I applied and was accepted to UC Davis’ MFA program. I found UC Davis to be a place where I unraveled things I thought I had figured out in painting. I think that here, too, I was able to filter stuff coming my way while remaining quite receptive to the feedback of instructors and fellow classmates. It was an incredible experience to be part of such an intimate and small program. I think my year had only seven graduate students, and here, again, I had the opportunity to paint like I had never done before, working in a private studio morning to night.

Whirligig: How has your student experiences influenced your own teaching?

José: I want to provide as much as I can for my students because there were times in my academic career that I was just not getting any information. Some of the teachers I came across, both high school and college, were just not providing anything. So I try to be an open book about my experience as a student and all of the things I’ve gathered over the years. I try to constantly place myself in my students’ shoes. I also try to keep in mind all of the questions I had and the things that made me feel overwhelmed and underwater. Being conscious of those things could make me a stronger asset for my students.

Whirligig: What interests you the most about teaching art?

arenas_chochki08José: There are a lot of things that I get excited about. Seeing how students succeed is a really special and exciting thing. When I’m working with a class and I’m able to have them stay with a problem and overcome it, or working side-by-side with a student through open dialogue and criticism, providing them with the best information that I can so that they are able to make informed and thoughtful decisions. Seeing a student that, because of you, they are able to develop the tools necessary to successfully communicate their ideas is very rewarding. I find it keeps me fueled that anyone who enters my classroom can come out a more skillful and mindful artist. Naturally, as a painter I really like painting classes where I am able to bring in the experiences that happen to me in my own studio — where these two things come together — my time working alone as an artist and my time working with students. I often will bring one of my own paintings to share and discuss with the class, and I think the students’ perception of me can shift — they see me in a different light. Hopefully, they see that I care about what I do and talk about in class.

Whirligig: During the last years of her life you were teaching your mother to paint. Can you talk about this experience?

José: It was a slow and gradual process, but certainly she was always creative and driven. She was a seamstress and did a lot of things with her hands. I always thought it was a natural transition for her to work on paper and canvas. One day I brought a big stack of paper along with some of my art supplies and left them on her sewing table since I knew she was really timid and shy about drawing and painting. I remember that she would say, “José, I’ll never be able to draw anything, not even a flower.” She always felt that she could never learn that skill. Slowly though, she would ask me about a particular technique, like how do you shade something in, or how do you draw the ruffled edges of a flower. This soon became a ritual. I would visit her on Saturdays, and after taking her to church we would have lunch and she would show me what she was drawing and doodling. After a few months she started putting color into her drawings with colored pencils. When I suggested that maybe she should start painting she’d say, “No, no. I can’t do that, I’m just a beginner.”  I slowly eased her into it.

One day I brought her a set of acrylic paints and a couple of canvases. I remember I gave her a bit of instruction and was happy to see that she already had a bunch of pictures of calla lilies that she wanted to paint. I helped her map out the calla lilies and she started putting the colors down and made a great painting. I realized that she was less comfortable with drawing than she was with painting. She wasn’t saying that she couldn’t paint at all. On the contrary, she would get lost and absorbed in the painting and was not self-conscious in the least.  After about a year, I set her up with an oil painting station equipped with an easel, oil paints and some oil brushes. Once I introduced her to the oil paints she just took off with it. She got really into mixing and blending with the paint. She would call me and say, “I have this idea. I want to paint this particular flower. I want to paint hands now.” I’d tell her over the phone that I would bring her some examples, and when I would next see her we would work out the composition and colors and she would work all week checking in with me over the phone when she had any questions.

She quickly gained speed and after a while I had to get her started on 2 or 3 paintings at a time because otherwise she would call me mid-week to tell me she needed more canvases. She became quite a painter. I’m so glad that we developed a special relationship around this shared interest.

Whirligig: Are you consciously encouraging your daughter’s artistic development?

José: Certainly, like my mom, I put materials in front of her, so she has access to them. In her case, so they are at her level, I have a small easel and station for her in my studio where she can grab the brush and paint anytime. When she comes into my studio and I am working, I’ll give her my palette knife and let her mix some of the paint and then put it on the canvas. I love that she sees me at work and knows that being creative is a natural and necessary part of life. Whenever she is in the mood, which is when she sees me in the studio, she says, “I want to paint Papi.” She loves it, too.

Whirligig: Many creative persons find it challenging to juggle teaching, family life and active making. But you are quite prolific. How do you manage this?

José: I’m lucky that Erica is very supportive, and I hope that she would feel the same, that we support each other’s endeavors. We’ve managed to create blocks of time to work. Since Emi was born we’ve had to change our approach to working at home. I notice that I’ve become more organized, although not too much, so that I have materials set up and ready to go, that way whenever I have a block of time, whether it’s an hour or 5 hours, I can jump right in and continue wherever I left off. Erica writes at home so it’s the same struggle in achieving a good flow — lately we’re doing full day exchanges and that seems to work best. I think since my studio is the place where I can be completely alone with my thoughts and where I can work out my ideas, no matter what I always make time. That said, it certainly is a challenge to juggle everything.

Whirligig: Who were your early influences?

José: When I was a kid living in Guadalajara, my mom, and sometimes my gramma, would take us to the central plaza on the weekends. There we would go to the Hospicio Cabanas where they had many of José Clemente Orozco’s murals high up on the ceilings. There were these big low-lying benches where you could lie down and look up at the murals from below. I remember those murals so well. They were muted colors that I think depicted the colonization period in Mexico. I also remember being exposed to Chicano murals when we lived in San José and when visiting family in Los Angeles and San Diego. I was never really exposed to contemporary painters by visiting a gallery space, so mostly I’d say my exposure to art was within the public sphere. And just like the murals in the neighborhood, I began to take notice of graffiti artists making art on the side of trains, tunnels and blank walls throughout the city.

Whirligig: What do you appreciate in other people’s art?


José: More and more, beyond reacting to how a work affects me visually and emotionally, I’m starting to place myself where the artist is in relation to their work, rather than my own experience with it. I think this is mostly a curiosity about what drives other people to make something, no matter how out there or beyond my taste it may be. Here’s an example: I went to a show a couple of years ago where the artist, Il Lee, scribbled obsessively with bic pens on dozens of canvases and paper supports. They were pretty non-recognizable, with mostly dense and textured fields of blue color. You could see that he scribbled for hours repeating the same motion over and over again until he achieved a kind of overall coverage. It made me think that, beyond the way I was reacting to the artwork, there was something there about the person making it — I’m not talking about the kind of modernist thing where it’s the artist as genius either, but just on that level of why we do anything at all. Is it for our own sake that we are compelled to do these things? Anyway, I thought they were really beautiful and quietly intense, like an ocean swell at times. The fact that they were all done by hand, in my mind, also intensified the personal drama of working that way. I’m sure it’s also because doing something like that would drive me crazy.

Whirligig: What artist(s) do you find most interesting at this time?

José: One person that I get really excited about seeing their work is Kerry James Marshall. When I was in Chicago I got to see one of the commissioned works that was at the MOMA as well as another commissioned work that was at the San Francisco MOMA. Those two paintings are a bit cleaner in terms of application. His older works reflect an excitement through his paint-making process. His narratives are culturally charged and deal with many aspects of African-American pop culture. I think of him as a kind of modern socialist painter who addresses cultural and socio-economic concerns.

A show that has been on my mind and that I recently attended at the Oakland Art Museum was Squeak Carnwath’s “Painting is no ordinary object” exhibition. I really liked her work when I was at SFAI, and visiting this show brought me right back to responding to the seductive and enticing qualities that paint creates. The experience of seeing her new work really charged me up. After seeing the show, I built seven new canvases that are now waiting to be painted on.

Julio Galan, a painter from Monterey, Mexico, is a contemporary Mexican painter who I am inspired by because of his ability to unapologetically take from a great many sources — some very Mexican in flavor. He blends them at will to touch on gender and identity, mainly as it deals with his own homosexuality and how gender is recognized in Mexican society. Mexico, still somewhat conservative and very Catholic, is beginning to recognize that homosexuality is a part of life, but because Galan incorporates religious iconography, some of his paintings are quite controversial.

Whirligig: Can you talk about the concept of originality in art and your perception of the role of originality today?

José:  Well, like the above artists, I borrow at will and take a little here and add a little there, virtually from anywhere and everywhere. I think the images are certainly not original, and maybe not even the ideas. All of the baggage I’m carrying — my experiences and everything that I’ve taken in and internalized comes out through the act of expression via painting. Maybe the individual processing leads to a unique way of arranging and putting things down to convey meaning. I really don’t know fully what the role of originality might be. My best guess is that western art has brought us past a point where the weight of originality has been lifted and the fact that we can take an image and ‘borrow’ it for another purpose is a pretty liberating thing.

Whirligig: What makes art, art?

José: Hmmm, I don’t quite know, but I do know I want to make stuff and say something with it, to share my experience of being in this world and how I navigate and make my way through it. Part of what I am doing when I make a painting is revealing something of myself, and in the process, fulfilling my own curiosity as I play and explore materials. So I do see art as a vehicle for communicating thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Is that a definition of what art can be? That’s how I think of art — and that I can be able to do all of these things by painting.

Whirligig Interview by Nanette Wylde.

José’s website:

Images from the top:  Mural on First Street, San José, California, 2009. detail, Mural on First Street, San José, California, 2009. detail Mural on First Street, San José, California, 2009. Conmigo, oil on canvas, 2006. Mapped, oil on canvas, 2006. Tugboat, oil on canvas, 2007. Personal Effects, oil on canvas, 2007. Chochki, oil on canvas, 2008. Crossing Over, oil on canvas, 2008. All photos copyright and courtesy of José Arenas.